Historic Brooklyn Underground Railroad Site
After coming across Plymouth Church while reading Gateway to Freedom: the Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Professor Eric Foner, Jessica Marta suggested that we organize a field trip to visit the church. On Sunday, 25 Politics for the People NYC members and friends visited the church, which had been part of the Underground Railroad in Brooklyn.
We were given a wonderful tour by Ms. Lois Rosebrooks, Director of the Plymouth Church History Tours. As we sat in the church’s original pews Ms. Rosebrooks gave us a very moving account of the church’s anti-slavery activism under the leadership of Henry Ward Beecher.
In 1847 Henry Ward Beecher became Plymouth Church’s first minister. He actively aided fugitive slaves, raised money for their freedom and spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Law. As Eric Foner writes:
“Beecher helped to raise funds for the New York State Vigilance Committee, and his church provided shelter to fugitives. From his pulpit he held mock “auctions” of female slaves, to raise money from parishioners to purchase their freedom.” (Gateway to Freedom, page 117)
Abraham Lincoln attended Plymouth Church when he visited New York City to give his Cooper Union Address in 1860. In fact he was initially invited to speak at Plymouth Church but the location was moved to Cooper Union. The day before the Cooper
Union speech which propelled his presidential campaign, Lincoln attended services at Plymouth Church. In the church garden is an engraving of Lincoln sitting in a pew at the church.
In 1863 Beecher was asked by President Lincoln to travel to Great Britain to speak there in support of the Union cause, which Beecher did and he helped prevent Britain from siding with the confederacy.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the church in 1963 and Ms. Rosebrooks was in the church choir at the time. She described Mahalia Jackson saying to Dr. King, “give them the dream speech Martin, give them the dream speech!” Dr. King then tossed away his prepared remarks and gave a passionate sermon on the “American Dream”.
We were thrilled to visit and explore the history together. For P4P members from out of town, if you are in New York City at any point, I hope that you will visit the church which is located at 75 Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights.
—Dr. Jessie Fields
Some P4P members share their impressions:
From Cheryl, Brishae and Grace White:
It was great seeing everyone at the tour of Plymouth Church! My daughters shared that it was amazing, intriguing & somewhat an emotional experience to know that Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass & Martin Luther King visited Plymouth Church.
To be able to visit such an historical place was mind blowing!
I thought for Beecher to take such a risk during that time period was incredibly brave & unselfish! To know that he didn’t succumb to the common rhetoric & racism toward Black folks or people different from the norm is to be celebrated immensely! I also enjoyed the guide’s own personal story & how it was revealed that her own father was a member of Plymouth Church, which solidified her personal connection to the church.
It was much enjoyed!
Cheryl, Brishae and Grace White.
Impressions and Observations – Tour of Plymouth Church, April 12, 2015 (154 years to the day after the start of the Civil War) From Richard Patik
Being in a spot where famous people stood and spoke and sat in Plymouth Church and who helped develop and lead a movement to end slavery — I recalled a statement Lenora Fulani made at a community organizing event in the Bronx late last year. Several hundred people came to this event, myself included, expecting to hear great things and for Lenora and other leaders to take charge and change things as they are. Dr. Fulani said, “Who’s going to change the world? You are who is going to change the world.”
I am reminded from this visit to Plymouth Church — where Henry Ward Beecher preached, Abraham Lincoln visited, Clara Barton and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglas and Martin Luther King spoke — that we often look to “great people” to change our world, to overthrow old ways of how we ourselves or our world is organized — not feeling our own power to do so. Not feeling our own power, nor our responsibility.
Hearing the history of this historic church from the very knowledgeable Ms. Rosebrooks we can see that movements start small, they involve many people, many voices who take unpopular positions and uncomfortable risks, doing “weird” things (as Beecher did raising funds to supply rifles to Kansas Free-soilers or in holding mock slave auctions in front of the congregation to put a face on the indignities of slavery (for both slave and slaver), all the while leading a respectable congregation. And currents of change also begin flowing because others [the congregation in this case] say “Yes” to these risks and weirdness and something has a chance to be built that wasn’t before. Yes, and someone invites us on a tour, we come and now we collectively have this experience which might lead to…
We were reminded, too, in this tour that change and re-organization takes time. Many ordinary actions take place over time, in fits and starts, behind the ones that make history books or sound bites on the news. It’s a compilation of a lot of ordinary efforts by ordinary people who together find the courage to LOOK at uncomfortable or deplorable things and speak about them and give new performances they don’t even know how to give. And in so doing inspire others to do the same. Even generations later.
Our ‘group picture’ in the process of forming, in front of the Henry Ward Beecher statue. What we will be-come caught in a moment of organizing activity.
Warm regards, Richard
I loved joining the Politics for the People Book Club at Plymouth Church. The presentation was a fascinating and inspiring history of Plymouth Church and the role Rev.Henry Ward Beecher played in establishing it as an important stop on the Underground Railroad. I was especially proud to be there learning this history with all of us!
From June Hirsh
I found it amazing to learn more about the bravery of ordinary people who stood up against the horrors and injustice of slavery when most everyone looked the other way – or supported slavery as the status quo – – and that it was fugitive slaves and free blacks who courageously led the way – risking their very existence to find a way to live in dignity. It was a proud and haunting feeling being in the very church that housed and defended these illegal and morally just activities.
Comments on the Tour From Vicki Karant
What a wonderful experience to spend an early spring Sunday at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights. It has played a role in the last two book club selections. Being inside listening to an enthusiastic historian of the church brought the profound significance of the place and the role of the people who called it theirs into sharp focus. The sacrifices of those who protected fugitive slaves was present in the walls, the beautiful windows and entire atmosphere.